Understanding Food Allergies
The most common food allergies in young children are to cow's milk, eggs, and peanuts. Always consult a physician for accurate diagnosis and treatment of a food allergy. Here is some basic information that can help in understanding food allergies and lactose intolerance.

Let's Start With an Overview
Only 5 percent of young children and 2 percent of adults suffer from food allergies. They are most common in children under age 3, affecting about 8 percent of this age group. Nearly half of the food allergies found in children younger than 3 are outgrown or become tolerable by age 7. Food allergies cannot be cured, so the only way to control them is to completely avoid the problem food. Luckily, being allergic to more than one food is very rare.

Cow's Milk
This is one of the most common food allergies in infants and toddlers. It affects 2.5 percent of children under age 3. And it is most common in infants under 6 months. Fortunately, 85 percent of children outgrow it by age 4. Symptoms can include gas, constipation, diarrhea, stomach discomfort, and possibly vomiting. To control, stay away from cow's milk and products. Consult the box for examples of products you may not associate with cow's milk, as well as ingredients to avoid. Seek a dietitian's advice for alternate sources of calcium and vitamin D.

This allergy is usually caused by the protein-rich egg white. Eighty percent of allergic children can tolerate eggs by age 5. However, until then, avoid eggs, including both the yolks and whites. Also read food labels carefully for eggs or ingredients extracted from eggs (see box).

Peanut allergies affect every 6 out of 1,000 people in the general population. Only 20 percent of infants diagnosed with a peanut allergy eventually outgrow it. Peanut allergies range in sensitivity. Some children will react to a kiss from someone who has eaten peanut butter.

Itchy skin and rashes are minor symptoms. More severe reactions include hoarseness of voice, asthma attacks, anaphylaxis (shortness of breath and wheezing), and gastrointestinal discomfort. Peanut allergy can be life-threatening, especially for children with asthma. Research shows that more severe reactions are connected to continued eating of peanuts and peanut products once the allergy is known. The best lifelong treatment is strict avoidance of all peanut products. Read the food labels on everything that allergic children eat. Many physicians suggest that any adult caring for a child with a peanut allergy should have on hand an injectable form of epinephrine-called an epi-pen-and know how to use it.

Peanut Allergy: Foods and Ingredients to Avoid
In truth, there are too many to name. Avoid anything that says "peanut" until a physician recommends if, when, and how much to reintroduce into a child's diet.

Lactose Intolerance: Not an Allergy
This condition occurs when children cannot digest the sugar, called lactose, in milk and dairy products. They have difficulty breaking down lactose to be absorbed into the blood, and this causes stomach discomfort and gas. Most children under age 6 digest milk easily, so only a small number of children are affected. Having lactose intolerance does not mean eliminating dairy foods. Cheese and yogurt can usually be digested without a problem. Milk in small portions ( to 1/3 cup), spread out during the day, can often be handled just fine. If a child has chronic diarrhea or cramps, see a physician.

Calcium and Protein:
Building Blocks of Growth and Good Health

Together, the milk and meat groups provide calcium and protein that are essential for growing bones, teeth, and muscles, and for good functioning of other parts of the body too. Don't forget that to build strong bones and muscles, both children and adults need to exercise most days.

Marvelous Milk
A lifetime of good calcium nutrition plus daily exercise is critical for bone health. It may help prevent osteoporosis (weakening of the bones) later in life. Just over half of young children ages 3 to 5 consume the recommended amounts of calcium daily, and only 20 percent of teens are getting enough.* For children ages 2 to 6, the best source of calcium is from milk and other dairy foods. As a bonus, dairy foods include vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium.

Get Dairy Calcium Daily
Experts recommend the equivalent of 2 cups of milk (16 ounces) daily for a child 2 to 6 years old. Use this chart to mix and match foods and portion sizes to achieve the equivalent of 2 cups of milk a day.

Meet the Meat Group
The meat group contains beef, pork, poultry, fish, veal, and lamb. It also includes cooked beans (legumes), eggs, and nuts. Meat-group foods, as well as those in the milk group, are rich sources of protein. Health experts report that most children in the United States get plenty of protein, either from dairy foods or meat.

Protein Plus Iron and Zinc Too
Meat offers more than protein. Meat, fish, and poultry are rich in iron and zinc. Meat contains a factor that enhances the absorption of iron into the blood, meaning that children get more iron from meat than from vegetables with iron or fortified grain products. Iron, for healthy blood, and zinc, for normal development and wellness, are especially important for young children, who are growing rapidly. Additionally, meats contain some B vitamins, such as B6 and B12, that are difficult to find in other foods.

How Much Meat? Think Ounces
To get enough protein, iron, zinc, and other nutrients, experts recommend that young children have at least three or four portions of meat, fish, or poultry in a week. On a daily basis, young children should eat the equivalent of four to six ounces of lean meat. (Two- to 3-year-olds should receive a bit less.) Use this chart to mix and match foods and portion sizes to achieve the daily goal.

Find Out More
For more guidance on milk- and meat-group food requirements, consult MyPlate from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
It's available online at

Know Where Food Goes!
Once children have an idea about digestion, use this learning-center activity to let them test their understanding. You need a large, empty cereal box; enlarged copy of the child's digestive tract from this page; pictures of healthful foods; magnetic tape; a magnetic wand or other strong magnet.

Remove the top of the cereal box so that it is open at one end. Attach the image to the front of the box. Mount the pictures of foods onto tagboard and glue a small piece of magnetic tape to the back of each. To use, one child chooses a favorite food and places it at the opening of the child's mouth in the picture. A second child uses the magnet inside the box to guide the food from the mouth through the digestive process.

Tips on Raising a Milk Drinker

  • Provide a small measuring cup partially filled with milk as your child's very own "pitcher." If there are spills, they'll be small ones.

  • Be a role model and drink milk yourself.

  • Offer your child milk at every meal. Let him decide how much to drink.

  • Keep milk cold. It tastes better.

If Your Child Just Won't Drink Plain Milk . . .
It's OK to offer chocolate- or strawberry-flavored milk. You can also make your own flavored milk by blending in fresh or frozen strawberries or a fresh banana. Add a couple of ice cubes to be sure it's cold.